Analysis: James Shaw sought transformation through the mechanism of consensus — as slow, and frustrating, and unradical as it can be, writes John Campbell.

That James Shaw was intending to leave Parliament was so widely known that if Mars does indeed have Martians, they knew.

Even so, this morning’s announcement contained, as bigger political departures (Jacinda Ardern, Todd Muller, Nikki Kaye, in recent years) often contain, the shock of finality.

James Shaw had been Green Party co-leader since 2015. He is widely liked in Parliament. And in the swirling mosaic of Green Party politics he has been the guy in the suit — literally, of course, but figuratively, too.

Meaning what?

Shaw answered that himself, indirectly, during this morning’s news conference.

Asked, repeatedly, about the Zero Carbon Act, he described how proud he was of it being passed into law “with unanimous support across Parliament”.

Yes.

But then Shaw said: “I came under quite a lot of heat while were developing and passing that legislation for the compromises that we made in order to win bipartisan support for it.

“You know, it did have major compromise in it, there are a number of things I was not happy with in that legislation. But we were always saying that the most important thing was that we had that commitment to that enduring framework over multiple decades and multiple changes of government. That was the most important thing.”

Was it? Well, it depends on who you ask.

And, in a way, this was the James Shaw conundrum.

On the one hand, his deft and suited capacity to get the Nats over the line, achieving unanimity for climate change legislation. On the other hand, a sense that the legislation was well-meaning, high-minded but largely “toothless”.

The word “toothless” was Russel Norman’s, which makes it significant. Norman was Green Party co-leader before James Shaw. He’d left politics and become head of Greenpeace in New Zealand.

Assessing Shaw’s Zero Carbon Act triumph in 2019, Norman was equivocal.

“What we’ve got here is a reasonably ambitious piece of legislation that’s then had the teeth ripped out of it. There’s bark, but there’s no bite,” he said.

“The Bill sends some good signals until you get to the section at the end that negates everything else you’ve just read. This section states there is no remedy or relief for failure to meet the 2050 target, meaning there’s no legal compulsion for anyone to take any notice.”

What does a win look like for the Greens?

To teeth or not to teeth, that is the question.

Or, more prosaically, what’s a win look like for the Greens? An Act that transcends tribalism and endures but is flawed (or compromised, to use Shaw’s own word), or no Act at all?

The Greens themselves have sometimes seemed uncertain about the answer to that question.

In July 2022, the Green Party momentarily showed James Shaw the door, in a leadership challenge that, as it turned out, was more of a performance review.

Thirty-two of 107 delegates at the party’s AGM voted to vacate Shaw’s position. Then no-one else put their hand up for the job. And six weeks later, Shaw was re-elected unopposed.

It was like musical chairs with only one dude and, briefly, no chair at all.

Former Green MP Catherine Delahunty intimated, as RNZ headlined it, “James Shaw may not have been green enough.”

“What he has believed to be the best strategy is not necessarily supported by everybody because it’s not resulting in pressuring Labour to take stronger action — in fact, it’s seen as very weak by many of us involved in activism, and I think obviously by some of the party members as well.”

Obviously.

But a minority.

In this morning’s media conference, 1News deputy political editor Maiki Sherman asked Shaw if that kind of experience had been difficult.

“Oh, yes”, he replied. With a fleeting smile. But it made him, he thought, better at his job.

Perhaps Shaw’s most singular determination was to spread Green politics beyond tribe (or activist) Green.

“I am not committed to partisanship for its own sake,” he said, in his maiden speech.

“Political tribalism is, I believe, the greatest barrier to creating enduring solutions to the great challenges of our time.”

Tribalism, a party like the Greens can’t win broad support with it, but almost can’t survive (politically) without it.

Again, James Shaw indirectly spoke to that, this morning.

Talking about the National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity he described trying to “represent the indigenous worldview in an RMA instrument”, and concluded, with a droll sagacity, “we got to about as good a place, which is kind of dissatisfactory to everyone in equal measure”.

The poor bastard. When success is being “kind of dissatisfactory to everyone in equal measure”.

And that, in a way, is part of the balancing act the Greens, James Shaw and Marama Davidson, appear in recent years, to have fixed upon.

I wrote about this, last September, in an analysis piece headlined “Just who the hell are the Greens.”

I referred to a “genuinely fascinating study” from 2015, published in the New Zealand Journal of Psychology, and written by by Lucy J. Cowie, Lara M. Greaves, and Chris G. Sibley, out of the University of Auckland.

“Identifying Distinct Subgroups of Green Voters: A Latent Profile Analysis of Crux Values Relating to Green Party Support,” it was titled (admittedly, not exactly Barbie as a crowd-puller).

The study found that the Green voter base is “is composed of a number of distinct subpopulations who differ across a number of crux values”.

“We uncovered four distinct profiles that differed in their pattern of support across seven attitudinal domains; value for the environment, equality, social justice, wealth, belief in anthropogenic climate change, views about historical injustice and reparations for Māori, and value for Māori culture.”

In short, the Greens contain multitudes. And, in politics, multitudes can mean pressure points.

Shaw himself insisted, this morning, that the party’s caucus is as unified and as clear in their sense of vision and message as they’ve been during any of his time as an MP. (Notwithstanding the impact of the sudden departure of Golriz Ghahraman.)

And he, in a kind of Torvill and Dean combination with Marama Davidson, has usually made the act of containing the distinct subpopulations look easier than it possibly is. That he was able to do that, and also shimmy across the floor to gain National’s support for the Zero Carbon Act, speaks of an MMP politician highly astute in that version of politics.

But it doesn’t speak of the kind transformative or uncompromising (pick your word) policy leadership that Russel Norman, Catherine Delahunty and Sue Bradford might have hoped for.

The kind of policy leadership that is a key reason parties like the Greens, ACT and Te Pāti Māori exist.

We have Labour and National for a centre-straddling ubiquity. (Although, at the moment, Labour have disappeared as completely as an Elvis impersonator who specialises in the years since 1977, and National’s straddling has left the party at risk of getting David Seymour’s foot up their arse.)

Where now for the Greens?

So, where to now for the Greens?

The job is Chlöe Swarbrick’s, surely, if she wants it.

Does she want it? Given the misogyny unleashed on high-profile female politicians, would you?

Chlöe Swarbrick at Parliament on October 18, 2023 (file image).

And is she the change the Greens who were critical of Shaw want?

This is a tough time on the left. There has never been a one-term National (led) government (although they came close between 1990 and 1993, with a version of the kind of upheaval Christopher Luxon must now get control of — just ask Matthew Hooton.)

And being in opposition requires energy, focus and tenacity, without the guarantee of achieving anything more than representation, hope and survival.

Do the Greens now re-evaluate how they prioritise their “seven attitudinal domains?”

Do they become more green, to evoke Catherine Delahunty’s sense of disappointment. And what does more green look like?

“It’s got to be different from a middle-class, middle-age party just propping up the Labour government,” Delahunty said to RNZ in 2022.

It must feel even less appealing to prop up a Labour opposition. Particularly one as absent as this.

Having said that, the Greens are fresh off their best election result. And propping Labour up is not their job. (Lord knows, Labour don’t look like they can manage it, at present.)

“The time is now,” James Shaw said, this morning, “for a new co-leader to work alongside Marama to take this new caucus into the future.”

Tova O’Brien asked him about regrets.

He has a few.

“There is always work undone,” James Shaw replied.

“And that’s probably the great source. But, you know, if I felt that I could still continue to make a big difference on climate, and nature, and to do some of those things, then, you know, I wouldn’t necessarily be standing down.”

The balancing act

The difference. The Greens aren’t a status-quo party. A steady-as-she-goes amalgam of focus-group emptiness massaged into homily.

But too much meaning and they risk scaring voters away.

Too much risk-aversion and they’re the Labour Party.

The balancing act.

Asked if he’d ever considering resigning before, James Shaw laughed, and replied, “Every single day.”

“Every single day.”

He nodded at this. Then he added that every single day, until recently, the answer had been the same.

“Which is that the work is too important to walk away. Ah, the climate crisis, is getting worse, not better. The biodiversity crisis continues to atrophy, you know, the environment we depend upon. And so, it has always been, regardless of any self-doubt, or criticism, or events beyond our control, or anything like that, that it is the work that keeps us going.”

The work remains.

“These things we must transcend and transform,” James Shaw said, at the end of his maiden speech in October 2014.

That was the aspiration.

James Shaw sought transformation through the mechanism of consensus — as slow, and frustrating, and unradical as it can be.

His maiden speech continued.

“If any other member of this House from any political party or any member of the public listening hears this challenge and wants to rise to it, my door is open.”

What a prescient insight into exactly the kind of politician he would be.

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